ROME — Way back in 1998, Bill Clinton bet on the young Assad. He was to be his father’s successor, and the United States believed that the young Bashar al-Assad, once he reached power, would be the person to bring Syria back into the fold among the civilized nations of the world.

And so Clinton’s government, despite the controversy it provoked, took some very significant decisions: Syria was removed from the black list of narcotic-producing countries, sanctions were lifted, and the arms embargo was eased. America’s allies quickly followed suit, and Italy was the quickest to reestablish links with Damascus. The result: a massive order of what was then a payday of 400 billion lira (206 million euros) for the Italian military industry.

The Italian government authorized this monster-order as can be seen in the weapons report presented to Parliament on March 31, 1999 by the government of then Prime Minister Massimo D’Alema: “In 1998, the considerable export total came mainly from a single destination country, and in practice, from a single order. Among the main countries, Syria was the top destination with 21.79% of weapons exports, equivalent to 400.64 billion lira with a single authorization." With just one purchase, that year Damascus far outspent both France and the U.S. in its military shopping spree in Italy.

What that order actually involved would become clear during the following years: night-vision viewfinders for tanks with thermal and laser capacities, called “Turms,” produced by a company from within the Italian conglomerate Finmeccanica. It would allow the Syrians to modernize old T72 Soviet tanks that were equipped with rather rudimentary viewfinders.

The company, Galileo Avionica, pocketed $229 million in return for 500 Turms pieces. As is normal procedure, the order was drawn up by the companies, and then authorized by the government. The provision was spread over several years; this sort of equipment is not held in a warehouse ready to go, but produced and delivered in batches.

Dictator favors

It is no surprise that European statistics show an impressive flood of exports from Italy to Syria throughout the first decade of the new millennium. The rate was so high that Italy became the European leader in weapons sales. But it wasn’t alone. Still in 1998, a merchant ship set sail from Denmark with 12 T72 tanks on board and 186 tons of munitions. And in Germany a scandal had recently broken surrounding Telemit Electronics, suspected of having bribed foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher’s liberal party in exchange for government authorizations to export to Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

Without losing a sense of proportion, however, it must be remembered that for the last 10 years Vladimir Putin’s Russia has Syria’s arms dealer of reference: 78% of weapons in Assad’s army come from Moscow.

 “And we are only talking about official sales here,” vice-president of Italy’s disarmament archive Maurizio Simoncelli warns, “not the gray or black markets. The statistics, as is to be expected, only record registered contracts. Then there is all the rest.”

“All the rest” is everything transported undercover. Otherwise, it would be impossible to explain how there are still so many weapons in Syria when an arms embargo has been in place on the regime for two years and almost no one will admit to supplying the rebels. According to the Permanent Observatory on "Light Weaponry" (a vague definition usually comprising pistols, rifles, cartridges, and even hand bombs, machine guns and missile launchers) and Italy’s Disarmament Network, the sharp rise in light weapons exports to Turkey is very suspicious.

According to a recent inquiry on the website Wired, the orders from Galileo Avionica continued for 10 years, peaking in 2002 and 2003. And given that 500 tank viewfinders is a huge number, even for Assad’s extensive army, it is believed that a certain number of those pieces were passed on to Saddam Hussein ‘under the counter.’

This was the eve of the Second Gulf War after all. US Secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld accused Assad’s regime of providing Saddam with arms and thus bypassing the embargo then in place. What’s more, this is the same period in which the Iraqi regime relocated its chemical arsenal to Syria. Those were some of the same chemical weapons that Saddam had used against Kurdish rebels, and which Assad is using today. An exchange of favors from one dictator to another.